How to Plan for CRM Success

CRM has become known not only for amazing successes, but also for the numerous documented failures. Although the media has been flooded with case study after case study of corporate America and its love-hate relationship with CRM, little attention has been given to the underlining themes of most unsuccessful projects: lack of a true diagnostic study and an improper setting of expectations. Successful CRM programs boast the common denominators of participation from all levels of management and personnel, understanding of current business challenges, detailed examination of infrastructure and information system capabilities, business process review, data availability, and project ownership. Such factors not only create for a better software program, but also have been known to actually improve overall business operations. People Do Make the Difference Like any solid business operation, successful CRM projects hinge on a clear understanding of objectives, myriad operational and administrative factors, and participation by those persons affected by the results. However, a CRM project is frequently declared a failure before the software is even implemented due to lack of any comprehensive diagnostic approach or input from the affected players concerning the expectations of the project. Such a scenario is destined to fail since many companies relegate the CRM project merely to a software purchase made by the IT staff without a true analysis of systems and processes. A definition of current challenges, as well as a thorough understanding of the practices currently in place, is crucial. As such, a true diagnostic study for a CRM program begins by interviewing key individuals to gain a broader picture and understanding of the issues and processes. By soliciting feedback from individuals representing all segments of your organization, you can create an automation system that meets the needs of your entire team. It is common to find that a manager's primary objectives relate to business operations and their ideas for technology tell another story. In this scenario, it is evident that management believes the IT department is better able to select "tools" for the user. This is dangerous, because unless properly understood, the business and technology can later be at odds. Therefore, it is important to understand the management thought process, business challenges, and objectives, as well as provide a base level of understanding as to the impact of software selection. The discussion also should evolve into a basic review of CRM to dispel any myths or misconceptions about the buzzword, as well as the agreed upon results they expect from a CRM solution. An up-front agreement of goals establishes a "contract for success" for the project. What many fail to embrace is the importance of the educational and soul-searching process with upper management extending beyond one meeting. It is necessary to set up additional interviews with managers on a one-on-one basis to focus on questions or individual hot buttons. Such data gathering is crucial to the results, to ensure that all objectives -- from management to potential users' -- are incorporated into the solution. Further, management's objectives are typically high level and provide the umbrella under which all other "requests" gathered from interviews will fall. If the other requests cannot be linked somehow to management's umbrella, it is reasonable to question their validity in the first phase of CRM implementation requirements. Infrastructure or Information Systems Capabilities
Although incorporating infrastructure and information systems is an obvious step in a CRM diagnostic process, correlating these areas with functionality is widely overlooked. While the IT experts easily offer a technical view of the CRM process -- to include operating systems, databases, storage devices, networks and more -- they are not always given the opportunity to worry about functionality, nor do they always possess the appropriate business focus that will create the optimal infrastructure. Further, since IT departments are typically understaffed, CRM becomes just another project on the list of things to do. The result is software that may fit technically with the infrastructure and architecture, yet it lacks any correlation with management objectives or business processes. It also is common for the IT group to be charged with supporting the CRM system. However, most IT teams do not have the necessary background to effectively deal with supporting the CRM applications from a user perspective. Although they possess the expertise and should be expected to manage technical support, management of the administration of the system requires close interaction between the users of the system and the functionality provided -- a problem if the IT team does not have the expertise necessary to manage the business process. As such, a balance of key issues relating to the technical capabilities of both hardware and software are crucial to smooth integration, but should not be the driver of selecting a solution. Don't Forget the Processes You're Automating While many CRM ventures actually begin with a review of objectives and securing buy-in from management, sometimes a project falls short of actually understanding the business processes the software is intended to automate. Process review is an art in itself and a stage that typically garners willing participation. After all, people love to tell you what they do. Crucial to success at this stage, however, is the method of phrasing questions to gain an understanding of the real problems experienced in the ranks. Beyond automating realistic and applicable business processes, this stage allows the team to develop user ownership of the system. It is surprising how many companies forget to ask the users of a system their opinion until the software has been purchased and they are expected to use it. Speaking directly with intended users that actually live these business processes on a daily basis allows for the delicate balance of objectives from management and users. Garbage In, Garbage Out This old adage is certainly true for CRM and many companies simply do not have good customer information beyond what is stored in their accounting or billing systems. Although this data may be valuable from an accounting perspective, it does not contain information specific to the salesperson or enhance the selling process. Likewise, client listings found in personal information programs, departmental databases, and spreadsheets -- even handheld devices -- are typically good sources of information from a sales representative's perspective, but because these are individuals databases, they lack the corporate focus required of a centralized CRM database. While both of these data sources provide a partial starting point, they are disconnected. This means that the data from one representative does not associate with another representative's data, which in turn doesn't relate to the accounting database. Attention to capturing accounting data and determining the best method for meshing it to the representatives' data should be given early in the diagnostics process to ensure information can be properly gathered, as well as linked to the back office accounting system. Regardless of the captured data and its original source, it is crucial that a database of some sort is inserted or imported into the CRM program. Simply creating a database shell without data with the intent of the sales staff adding their information once the software is launched is asking for failure. Experience shows that a sales team is more likely to embrace a CRM system if their data is already stored and ready for their use. Project Ownership Crucial to Success With a complete diagnostics study complete, it is crucial to once again stress the importance of project ownership. To be clear, project ownership does not necessarily refer to the intended users or the IT department. While input from these teams is crucial and relevant, project ownership must belong to executive and high-level management if the project is to succeed. Truly great CRM projects are not easy and the strongest solutions are usually a result of fighting through a variety of stumbling blocks and challenges. After all, a thorough diagnostics approach should not simply automate; rather, it should uncover and attempt to resolve business process challenges and dynamics for the greater good of the business. Only with a strong management sponsor to serve as the link between the implementation team, users, and management will you develop more than an off-the-shelf software solution. Such a representative or team becomes the voice to develop, articulate, and then remind your company about the reasons for embarking on the CRM program in the first place. About the Author Rene Litalien is founder and president of TASK. With nearly three decades of management experience, Litalien has managed multiple plant operations including production, sales and distribution, as well as interfaced with major retail buyers in negotiating technical solutions to aid the selling process. He founded management consulting firm and systems integrator TASK in 1997.
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